Originally published in World Jewry 5:2 (1962), pp. 5-8.
The conflict over the pending appointment of a new principal of London’s Jews’ College has become a matter of widespread public debate within the Anglo-Jewish community and press. Dr. Louis Jacobs aged 41, an eminent Anglo-Jewish rabbi and teacher, has been proposed for the appointment but the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Israel Brodie who is ex-officio president of the college, is reluctant to endorse it. Dr. Brodie has not defined his position clearly but seems to object to the appointment because of some of the views of Dr. Jacobs stated in his two books We have Reason to Believe and Jewish Values. The discussion has even been taken up by some non-Jewish scholars, especially at London University with which Jews’ College is associated, and has been widely reported in the national British press. Very often, however, the matter has been discussed by the uninformed in terms of personalities, institutions and offices. The underlying deeper issues have frequently been overlooked. In the belief that these issues transcend the local argument and are of vital interest to Jews everywhere as one of the problems exercising Judaism today, we invited two young scholars, Professor Cyril Domb and the Rev. Dr. Chaim Pearl, to approach these issues from their own different angles. We also publish excerpts from Chapter II of Jewish Values (published by Vallentine, Mitchell, London) to acquaint readers with Dr. Jacobs’ position. The excerpts selected have been endorsed by the author as being a fair representation of his views.
RABBI DR. LOUIS JACOBS:
The Study of the Torah
The modern Jew attempting to make the ideal of Torah study his own finds it more difficult than did his ancestors. The pressing problem for the modern Jew is that he cannot be as sure where the Torah is to be found as were the Torah students of the pre-critical age. He knows too much about development and evolution in Jewish beliefs and practices, he has too strong an historical sense, he has too great an awareness of the external influences always at work in shaping the pattern of Jewish life throughout the ages, to assert confidently that a passage he happens to study in the classics of Judaism is the authentic word of God. He has been compelled to re-examine the whole question of what is meant by divine inspiration. The modern believer, though he subscribes to the ancient doctrine of ‘Torah from Heaven’ (Torah min hashamayyim), recognises the need for a good deal of sustained thinking on what is meant by Torah, by Heaven, and by from! He will tend to read his Bible with critical aids, his Talmud with the works of historical investigators to assist him, his Kabbalah with the recognition of its Gnostic and Neo-Platonic elements and of the universality of mysticism in the life of religion. As a believer he will not seek to eliminate the divine from human history in general or from the records of his own people’s encounter with the Absolute, but he is prepared to accept that there is a human element in Revelation, that God has revealed Himself not alone to men but through men. He can appreciate the tremendous ideal of attempting to grasp the word of God but in trying to win this ideal for himself he is constantly haunted by the fear of the inauthentic. In his studies of the Torah there is much that is tentative, much that is speculative; convinced though he is of the great truths on which his faith is based there are areas where his intellectual honesty compels him to adopt an agnostic attitude. His quest for certainty in these areas is rarely satisfied. He says with the prophet:
And they shall wander from sea to sea, And from the north even to the east; They shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord and shall not find it.
The serpent, in the book of Genesis, asks Eve: “Did God really say . . . ?” This is the burning question which torments the modern religious Jew. And yet he can state with conviction his belief that with regard to many of the teachings of the Torah the answer is, Yes. He knows that God did say: “Love thy neighbour as thyself”, “God created man in His image”, “Be holy”, “Thou shalt not pervert the justice due to a stranger”, “Honour thy father and thy mother”, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”; in these and many other commands he hears unmistakably the voice of God. He knows, too, that there are many things recorded in the Torah which God did not say, which are part of the human element in Israel’s encounter with the divine. Most significant for his predicament, he feels uncertain whether some teachings are part of the divine will or whether they belong to the human element in the Torah. (It can be demonstrated that our ancestors were not unaware of the human element in the Torah, but for the modern Jew the problem is particularly acute because critical investigation into the sources of Judaism during the past 150 years has made most of us appreciate the extent of this element.) Is he then to limit the religious duty of Torah study to those matters on which there is certainty? By no means, for he recognises the capacity for distinguishing between the eternal and the ephemeral to be itself the result of Torah teaching. It is the Torah (Jewish traditional teaching about the faith) which has taught him, both directly and by moulding the Jewish character, to regard the verses quoted above as the voice of the living God and the verses concerning the extermination of the Canaanites, for one example, to be inapplicable. And this power to discern and its cultivation are themselves part of the Torah. The search for Torah is Torah!
In the Torah study of the religious Jew today the idea of a search is prominent. There is bound to be a tentativeness about many of the conclusions he reaches. For religious Jews have hardly begun to evolve a philosophy of Judaism based on sound historical investigations, a philosophy that avoids the poverties of historicism and captures the deep insights of traditional faith in a God who makes demands of His worshippers, without turning a blind eye to all that modern scholarship has achieved. Urgently required is a Jewish approach to what is now called “Biblical Theology”. Many Christian scholars and theologians have tried to understand the implications of modern critical scholarship for their own faith. Needless to say, their work, while useful in indicating the, approach required, cannot profit the Jew. An essay like the chapter on “Old Testament Theology” by Professor N. W. Porteous in The Old Testament and Modern Study, for instance, which discusses with great learning the value of the Old Testament for Christian believers, can contain little to which a devout Jew will subscribe. But Jews have much to learn from such essays of the need for assimilating the new Biblical knowledge and the “assured results” of modern scholarship in order to build a Jewish theology in which Biblical teaching is seen in the light of its application to Jewish life by the Rabbis and teachers, saints and scholars, philosophers and mystics, in every age, not forgetting the contribution of millions of Jews whose “custom is Torah”.
The pioneers in the field of “Jewish Science” were bound to adhere to the principle of the “separation of science from faith and life” so as to acquire, so far as it is humanly possible to do this, a more or less objective account of how Jewish ideas and institutions grew. They cannot be blamed if, like all pioneers, their enthusiasms made them too indifferent to the implications of the new learning for Jewish life in the present and too detached to be concerned with those implications. This one-sidedness can now be redressed. But it would be a spiritual tragedy if this were done by rejecting the tried methods of scholarship in exchange for blind worship of the past. The time has come when objectivity need not be looked upon as the fruit of neutrality towards living religious values, when the theologian can join hands with the historian in trying to grasp the word of God to our generation speaking through the pages of the past. Once the idea is accepted that the quest for Torah is itself Torah the grand old Jewish ideal of Torah study for its own sake is as relevant today as in the past and one that is fully compatible with the most objective approach in which the truth is followed wherever it may lead. If only a new type of Jewish scholar is permitted to emerge, who blends both the religious devotion of the old-style talmid hakham with the expertise, the ability to specialise in one or more great fields of Jewish learning, and the objectivity of the modern, scientific, scholar, then the study of the Torah will once again flourish as one of the most sublime of Jewish values.
PROFESSOR CYRIL DOME:
Faith is outside scientific theory
In the discussion concerning the appointment of a principal of Jews’ College an attempt has been made to convey the impression that all thinking people arc behind Dr. Jacobs, whereas the supporters of the Chief Rabbi are bigoted fanatics and heresy hunters. I believe this to be quite untrue; my own circle of friends consists largely of university and professional men nearly all of whom are in complete agreement with the Chief Rabbi. I need hardly point out that no spirit of fanaticism is responsible for this attitude, but the sincere conviction that Dr. Jacobs’s ideas and outlook lead away from traditional Judaism, and, given the opportunity, are likely to cause serious disintegration in the Anglo-Jewish community.
Fact and theory
In his writings Dr. Jacobs makes use of the term “scientific”, as applied to Biblical criticism. As an exact scientist I do not feel that such a terminology is justified. But, in any case, since there is confusion in the public mind regarding the precise meaning of the term “scientific knowledge”, and its relation to religious belief, I shall devote a few preliminary paragraphs to a brief exposition of these topics. I hope that with this background the difference between Dr. Jacobs and Orthodox tradition will emerge clearly.
At the outset a distinction must be drawn between scientific (or experimental) fact, and scientific theory. For an experimental fact the words “permanently established” can be used legitimately, e.g., for statements like “the circumference of the earth is about 25,000 miles”, or “copper melts at a temperature of 1083 degrees centigrade”, or “ice is lighter than water”. For a scientific theory the same words are quite out of place, since a scientific theory is a temporary framework constructed by human beings to account for a certain limited group of experimental facts; as further facts come to light the theory may have to be modified or abandoned. “All matter consists ultimately of 92 indivisible elements”, “all matter is made up of three elementary particles, electrons, protons and neutrons”, “the motion of all particles is governed by the deterministic laws of Newtonian mechanics” are examples of such theories which made their specific contribution to the development of science and were subsequently discarded.
Belief has no place in scientific theory. A good scientist should not believe in his theory, but should be prepared to abandon it when a new experimental fact comes to light to which it fails to apply. On the other hand, belief and faith are the essential ingredients of religion. No religion can be based on reason alone, since religion is much concerned with the ultimate. Certain beliefs are common to all religions, for example, belief that man has free choice between good and evil. Without such an assumption of free-will there would be no possibility of moral betterment, and hence religion could not exist.
What attitude does a religious person adopt if a particular scientific theory contradicts this concept of free will? This was the position in the nineteenth century when all mechanical laws were deterministic, and current scientific ideas assumed that, if the constitution of any system was known at any time, its future behaviour could be completely predicted. A religious person living during this period would have to face the dilemma that “modern scholarship” and “scientific knowledge” had shown that there was no possibility of free will. Needless to say religious belief was not abandoned; the faithful assumed that this challenge would not remain permanent, and surely enough the twentieth century brought a non-deterministic theory. This present “Quantum Mechanics” naturally includes all the valid results of Newtonian theory, but its philosophic basis is completely different. Of course, very few scientists consider that this theory is in any way ultimate, and except as a demonstration of the transient character of scientific ideas, it should .not be used as a support for belief in free will.
Fundamentals of belief
Judaism as a particular religion embracing, both ethically and practically, all aspects of life and behaviour, has its own special fundamentals of belief. These were codified by Rambam into 13 principles of faith, but Rambam was careful to trace the source of each of his assertions to the Torah. He states at the end of his enunciation that these principles are the defining characteristics of the Jewish faith and a person who rejects any one of them has removed himself from the confines of Judaism. The eighth and ninth principles are the divine character and Mosaic origin of the Torah, its unity and eternal validity. It is these principles which have been accepted by all Orthodox Jewish authorities, and which are now being challenged because of the results of “modern scholarship”. Such “scholarship” does not consist of established fact, but of theory and speculation; the original theories have already been discredited, and there is no reason to assume that the current theories will prove any more permanent.
Logical argument is particularly encouraged in Judaism, and Jewish leaders in all ages have been masters of the art; the Talmud, the writings of Rambam, Rabbi Joseph Caro, the Vilna Gaon and the Chazon Ish make the most extensive use of reasoned discussion. But they all recognised that such reasoning, being human, is liable to error, and when it leads to conflict with the basic principles of our faith, it must be abandoned. Thus in the Mishnah Keritot III 9, when Rabbi Akiva is involved in a discussion with his colleagues, we find the characteristic statement, “If what you tell me is a definite received tradition I accept it; but if it is the result of a logical argument, I can produce a counter-argument.”
Difficulties in textual interpretation as discussed by Dr. Jacobs are certainly not new. Even in the Talmud the phrase “All of my life I experienced difficulty with this verse. . .” is to be found in several places. Quite generally Rabbinic and Halachic literature abounds with unresolved difficulties, the phrase “there remains a difficulty which needs investigation” being a household occurrence. Nobody blames anyone for such difficulties, but only for being influenced by them into abandoning a linchpin of Judaism.
Door to disintegration
For indeed once one is prepared to concedes that certain parts of the Torah are ephemeral, and that human beings have the right to abrogate them, the door is open to the complete disintegration of practical Judaism. How do we know, for example, that the command to wear a Tzitzit is eternal, or to put Mezuzot on our houses, to eat only Kosher food, to live in the Succah for seven days, and all the other commandments which may cause great inconvenience and have little to do with twentieth-century society? Rambam clearly recognises such a conclusion in his explanation of the eighth principle “Torah min Hashamayim”, when he identifies this with the basis of our practical observance of the Mitzvot.
There is ample evidence around us to demonstrate the high correlation between belief and practice of Judaism, and to confirm Rambam’s thesis. Several movements in the recent past have avowed their intention of maintaining the practical fulfilment of Judaism without any insistence on belief; inevitably a steady deterioration of standards has set in. It is possible that an ethical code might remain—but ethics on their own are not Judaism.
In his letter of resignation Dr. Jacobs stated that “no reputable scholar in the world has an approach that is basically different from mine”. The former Principal of Jews’ College, Dr. Epstein, and the present Director of Studies, Dr. Zimmels, certainly differ basically from him. Are they not reputable scholars? Are not Professor Mirsky, Dr. Belkin and Rabbi Soloveitchik of Yeshivah University in the USA? Or Dr. Elitzur, Dr. E. Z. Melamed and Professor E. Urbach of Jerusalem? I hope that this statement was inadvertent, and that after more mature reflection Dr. Jacobs will realise that it is untenable.
Nobody challenges the right of an individual to put forward his own ideas, and nobody would object to him on the basis of such ideas if he were a candidate, say, for the head of the Hebrew department of a university. But the appointment now under discussion relates to the principal of an orthodox theological college—an appointment second only in significance to the Chief Rabbinate. It is clear that if the community is to remain orthodox the candidature of Dr. Jacobs is unacceptable.
REV. DR. CHAIM PEARL:
Judaism stands up to free enquiry
There is a Hassidic story of a follower who approached his rebbe to get help from the pangs of doubt. “Rabbi,” he said, “I am troubled with uncertainty about God and there are times when my faith in Him is weak.”
“Don’t worry too much,” counselled the rabbi, “and return home in peace. For so long as you are worried about your faith then all is well. The time to be concerned is when you no longer have feelings of doubt.”
Blind faith not religion
The wise rabbi understood that deep religious experience is not won easily and that the road to real faith must be punctuated by the signs of occasional perplexities and intellectual struggle. The chief elements employed in that struggle are free discussion and honest enquiry. Blind faith is not religious faith, nor is the unquestioned acceptance of other people’s certainties the proper basis for a lasting and meaningful personal commitment. Gilbert Murray said something very relevant to this discussion when he observed: “Man cannot accept certainties: he must discover them. An accepted certainty is not a certainty, a discovered certainty is.”
Within the framework of our Jewish religious civilisation, honest enquiry and the employment of reason have always had a central place in the development of Jewish life and thought. Indeed, the entire talmudic system is built up on the process of free discussion in which the faculty of reason remains unfettered, even when its conclusions seem to contradict the word of God as pronounced in the Bible. How else could Judaism have grown out of the suffocating restrictions of a literal acceptance of the scriptural word except through the use of practical common sense and reason in making the biblical teaching adaptable to the ever-changing demands and realities of life in all its conditions? The Torah is not in Heaven, but is the possession of human beings who accept its guidance with the best of their understanding. And this freedom of the intellect is one of the glorious features of Judaism. Edmond Fleg put it well when he declared, “I am a Jew because nowhere does Judaism demand the abandonment of the mind.” The only censors of the Talmud and other Jewish writings came from the Church, not from the Synagogue, and Jewish history knows nothing like the Catholic Officium Indicis Librorum Prohibitorum to blacklist the expression of opinion or to smother the flowering of the free human intellect. We cannot point to a Jewish counterpart to the Inquisition which existed to hunt down heretics and burn them to death. On those few occasions in our long story when bold adventurers in the exercise of reason were subject to the communal ban—as happened with the second century Elisha ben Abuya or with Uriel Acosta and Spinoza in the seventeenth century—the circumstances were quite exceptional since they went so far beyond the limits of every interpretation of Judaism as to be almost altogether out of it.
Factor of clericalism
But, further, in the cases of Acosta and Spinoza, as well as even in the case of Maimonides whose books were publicly burned, it is arguable that the opposition of the Jews of the time was motivated not so much by what they considered heretical teaching as by the fear that Christian clericalism would be outraged by the writings of Jews, which, because of their distinctly anti-literal approach to the Bible, was interpreted as an attempt to reject the miraculous and supernatural elements in the Scriptures and could thus undermine the very foundation upon which the Christian story is established.
This broad tolerance of Jewish authorities to divergences of viewpoint is particularly marked in the areas of theology and in the content of our religious faith. It is as if the representative teachers of Judaism recognised—and this is a point bearing on our present needs—that a Judaism which is unable or afraid to stand up to the test of free enquiry won’t last anyway, since its essential weaknesses must be revealed in the course of time. Kant, in describing the position of those who deny to reason a legitimate place in religious study put it this way: “Religion on the ground of its sanctity, and law on the ground of its majesty, often resist the sifting of their claims by critical thought. But in doing so they inevitably awake a not unjust suspicion that their claims are ill-founded, and they cease to command the unfeigned homage which is paid by reason to that which has shown itself able to stand the test of free enquiry.” Saadia Gaon, the forerunner of a long line of eminent Jewish philosophers in the Middle Ages, made the same point once and for all as far as Judaism is concerned. He went even further, declaring that only Jewish belief acceptable to reason is valid, while anything manifestly irrational cannot be part of Judaism. Reason must be used to test the validity of a tradition.
Prohibition of Cabbala
It is interesting that only in one area of learning did the rabbis pronounce an interdiction and that was in the case of Cabbala and some other forms of speculation into the mystical. Their motives were clear. In general it was because they felt that Cabbala was an abnormal enquiry which went against the chief characteristic of normative Judaism. Our religious outlook fosters a healthy and practical way of life and it will not easily tolerate the esoteric, the mystical or the irrational; so that in pronouncing a prohibition against the study of Cabbala by immature students the rabbis recognised the dangers in a system which involved the abdication of normal standards of reasoning and common sense.
Now what is it that we claim for reason? We claim that the Jew has the right, nay the duty, to employ reason to test the entire content of his faith. Not his own reason alone, for that would be foolish and arrogant, but also the reasonings of great and acknowledged sages who have built up the wisdom of the ages. The Jew recognises two sources for all religious knowledge—revelation and reason. But by the very nature of the concept we do not easily understand revelation. Therefore we turn to philosophy in order to draw out its meaning and explain its truths. The Jewish religious philosopher would accept Lessing’s remark that “the great religious truths were not rational when they were revealed, but they were revealed so that they might become so”. Here too we get a clear idea of what Ibn Ezra meant when he referred to reason as “God’s emissary” and what the Jewish philosophers intended when they described reason as the “handmaid of religion”: that is, a philosophy which the Jew used in order to explain the content of his faith.
No ready made doctrine
Take all the classical theological teachings of Judaism—our concept of God, the theories of Creation, man’s free will, the idea of the soul, revelation, the meaning and purpose of the commandments, the Messiah, reward and punishment and life after death. None of these came down to us as ready-made doctrines submitted for our acceptance on faith alone. But each and every one of these teachings has been and is even today subjected to a thorough intellectual examination by the best and most representative teachers of Judaism. Of course, this does not mean that reason is the sole arbiter of what is true and what is false. For true reason knows its own limitations and we would agree with the distinction made by an old Jewish scholar that, when all is said and done, there are some things which are lema’alah min hasechel, above and beyond the finite human intelligence to grasp. The concept of God is of such a kind and falls within the category of ideas which are impossible to comprehend. “If I knew Him, I would be Him!” cried Joseph Albo, and it is in itself reasonable to believe in the impossibility of the finite mind to understand the Infinite. On the other hand there are many areas of supposed Jewish doctrine which are not lema’alah min hasechel but which are manifestly neged hasechel—against all normal standards of reason and human intelligence. These are ideas which we have a right to examine and if necessary to reject. Students of Jewish philosophy know of the vast number of superstitious beliefs, crude notions, primitive anthropomorphisms and foolishly childish teachings which have been eliminated from the main body of Jewish beliefs and practices. This has been done throughout the ages and by brave teachers who knew that Judaism must not tolerate elements which are against reason. Credo quia absurdum est is not a Jewish text.
It is sometimes submitted by sincere Jews who will privately agree with the above thesis that reason may be inimical to faith. Let it be emphasised as strongly as possible that in Judaism that fear has proved to be ill-founded. On the contrary, as a result of the free intellectual enquiry which has been a constant element in the development of Jewish religious thought we have inherited a legacy which is purified of the superstitions and the irrational. Nor have we need to fear the questionings of the ordinary Jew. The danger to a vital and meaningful Judaism in our generation does not come from the questioner. The danger exists at the other end of the line—with the masses of our people who don’t question at all. They don’t question because they are smugly indifferent to the whole problem. They are the modern equivalent of the fourth son in the Passover Haggada, the she’eno yodea lishol, the one who doesn’t know or care to ask. By a stroke of characteristic genius the authors of the Haggada put that type at the very bottom of their list, for he is potentially the most dangerous. The late Hayim Greenberg once said that these days we have no need for a new Guide for the Perplexed; what we need is a Guide for the Unperplexed. That is our real problem today.